Best Chicago Pizza: A Tasty History
A significant proportion of Neapolitan citizens began their massive emigration in the late 19th century from the poverty of their native Southern Italian province of Campania to the hopeful horizons of the New World. An inordinate number of them found their dream of America in the Chicago neighborhood around Taylor Street which to this day is one of the most vibrant and vital Little Italys in the Western Hemisphere. And it is here that the roots of the best Chicago pizza can be found.
At the turn of the 20th century, the neighborhood of primarily Neapolitan immigrants was packed with handcarts and rickety wooden stands hawking all of the basic ingredients of the now well known Mediterranean diet: Healthy grains and pulses, olive oil, fresh fish, crusty bread, and all manner of fruit and vegetables. It was right here at the corner of Taylor and Racine that America's first official pizza vendor set up shop around 1890, selling his traditional Neapolitan Margherita style pizzas from a pushcart for the princely sum of two pennies each.
Although more than a century has transpired, not much has changed around Taylor Street, and you will still be able to savor the astounding aromas of this classic cuisine on every street corner, amidst the local boys whistling at the girls and the shouts of "Neh, Guaglio'" and "Ma Nun Me Rompere O' C**z'..." Unfortunately the best Chicago pizza is a bit more expensive than two cents now, but it's still just every bit as good.
It was right in the middle of World War II when Chicagoan Ike Sewell first opened the doors to his Pizzeria Uno at 29 East Ohio Street. Although by his name it is obvious that he is not exactly Italian, Sewell had a remarkable innovation that he was about to foist on the pizza world.
While the traditional Neapolitan Margherita style pizzas had very thin crusts and were essentially topped with little other than tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and a bit of basil, Sewell would turn pizzas on their ears and change the course of pizza history forever by topping a very thick, spongy, almost bread- or focaccia like crust with a variety of meat and vegetable ingredients, then plunking the massive concoction in heavy cast iron pans which would be tossed into gigantic ovens to bake to a delectable deliciousness. Thus was born the best Chicago pizza. Sewell's deep dish crust changed the face of pizza and now, almost seven decades later, Pizzeria Uno is a Chicago landmark.
Other surviving pioneer pizza parlors in Chicago include The Home Run Inn which was originally a bar at Kildare and 31st Street when just after the end of the Second World War the son-in-law of the owners, Nick Perrino, began serving a somewhat lighter pizza than Sewell's Pizzeria Uno's hefty lump of dough and toppings. Perrino's innovation did not stop at "lightening up" Chicago pizza, as he also introduced frozen pizza to Chicagoland.
Is Chicago pizza really suitable to be called pizza? Not according to the Verace Pizza Napoletana Association's American Division which is in charge of defending the original Neapolitan Margherita style pizzas as first devised by the Pizzeria Brandi in Naples: the restaurant where the Margherita pizza was invented and named in the middle of the 19th century. A traditional Neapolitan (such as myself) looks upon even the best Chicago pizza as a pretender to the title of pizza: It's more of an Italianized version of an upside down Shepherd's Pie than a true Neapolitan Margherita style pizza! A pizza baked in a deep pan with more than a pound of dough! Sheer heresy!
However, we can debate the validity of nomenclature until the pizza gets cold, and it is doubtful that anyone will be able to defend the viewpoint that the best Chicago pizza isn't ambrosial, luscious, scrumptious, toothsome, gratifying, satisfying, and exquisite! I may be a traitor to my purist Neapolitan heritage, but I love it!